The author and her three kids, including Jo Jo, far right. (Photo: Hallie Levine)
If you’re the parent to a child with special needs (like me) travel takes on a whole different dimension. My seven-year-old daughter Jo Jo has Down syndrome, and little things most other families take for granted — like a daytime stroll to the beach from the hotel — can be a major challenge. On a recent trip to Florida, my little Miss refused to walk anywhere. Whether it was just because it was too hard for her (kids with Down syndrome have low muscle tone) or she was just perfecting her Princess act, I ended up schlepping her on my back for most of our vacation. She had a great ride; I got a hernia.
The good news is finally some hotels and vacation destinations have caught on that some of our kiddos are differently abled, and there are more options when it comes to planning and booking your trip than ever.
This past February, Meg Harris, mom to a special needs child (her nine-year-old daughter Eliza has a neurological disorder) launched Specialglobe.com, a web site that serves as an online community for families of special needs kids to connect. The site offers destination guides, travel reviews, forums as well as a partnership to Expedia to book discounted flights and hotels. “I travelled a lot as a child, and I wanted my kids to have the same gift,” says Harris. “But while most places are in compliance to guarantee guests have physical access to things like hotel rooms and bathrooms, there just wasn’t as much information as to what hotels and vacation spots were really welcoming to people with cognitive disabilities. There were very few resources out there for families like mine.”
Related: Pack Like a Pro — Family Edition
Children of all abilities should have the opportunity to travel and experience amazing things. (Photo: Sally Anscombe/Stocksy)
Mindful of this same issue, veteran travel agent Alan Day founded his own website three years ago after a disastrous vacation with his 11-year-old son who has autism. “It was horrible and not a vacation at all — all the issues we had at home in Connecticut we had in the Caribbean. When I came back I vowed we’d never go through it again and started to research what help is out there for kids on the spectrum to travel.” Just as families for children with disabilities work on their IEPs (individual education plans), Day says he helps those desperate for some R&R develop an IVP (individual vacation plan).
Yahoo Travel rounded up the best tips and some amazing vacation spots that are great for kids with special needs.
When it comes to planning a vacation, Day has a few general tips:
1. Find a property that offers the activities that you want or that is close to those activities. “In the summer, that usually means finding someplace with a pool, since most kids with disabilities enjoy swimming,” says Day. “It gives you an ‘anchor’ activity and allows you to try as many other activities as you can, all the time knowing you have a fall back.”
2. For the budget conscious, the least expensive room in a high-grade hotel is better than the best room in a lower-grade hotel. (The better the hotel, the better the amenities and level of service.)
3. Smaller low rise properties tend to be quieter, which is good if you have a child with sensory issues — ask ahead of time for the last room in a given hallway, since it will only have one room next to it.
4. You can also always rent a vacation house, which may offer fewer amenities but all the comforts of home. Carl Shepherd, co-founder of the vacation rental site Homeaway.com, actually started the site over a decade ago after realizing how challenging it could be for him to travel with his then seven-year-old son Jack, who has Down syndrome. “When you have a child with special needs, you often need to control the environment, which can’t always happen in a hotel,” he explains.
Still stumped about vacation? Here are some ideas:
These two resorts — located just steps away from one another on Florida’s St. Pete Beach — were the first hotels to be designated Autism Friendly by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). What does that mean? Employees undergo CARD’s training program, to learn how to better meet needs of guests with autism. They have a “safety kit” available which includes a hanging door alarm in case you have a kid who likes to wander. They also offer KONK (Kids Only No Kidding) with special sensory activities, as well as selected drop-off programs for kids (no extra charge for kiddos with disabilities). Bonus: “Personally, I think it’s one of the best beaches in the United States,” says Day.
The Barnstormer is one of several rides at Dollywood that has been modified specially for special needs riders. (Photo: Dollywood)
This 150-acre Tennessee theme park is surrounded by trees and creeks, so it has a more calming feel to it than other amusement parks. “They provide families with a huge map of the theme park and which rides are accessible for people with varying levels of disabilities,” says Harris. Several of its attractions — the water ride River Battle, the rope course Adventure Mountain, and the swing ride Barnstormer — have also been modified to accept wheelchairs or seats for non-mobile kids.
This national company has partnered with several cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival since 2007 to offer cruises to adults and families living with children with special needs such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. Staff provides babysitting for a few hours each day for all your kids (special needs or not) so you can have some down time at no extra cost, as well as perks such as reserved seating for shows so you don’t need to arrive early.
Double tubes on slides and on the lazy river mean you can ride with your child. (Photo: Atlantis)
This Bahamas getaway “was probably the best vacation I ever took with my daughter,” says Harris. Among the highlights: double water tubes, so you can ride down with your child, little nooks and crannies and water caves so your kid can take a sensory break if they’re overwhelmed, and a kids’ program open to watching special needs children. “I left my daughter for two hours with a one-on-one aide for no extra babysitting cost, something I’ve never done at a hotel before,” says Harris.
Rides at Morgan’s Wonderland were designed for special needs guests – like a carousel with special wheelchair-accessible “chariots.” (Photo: Morgan’s Wonderland)
This Texas theme park was created in 2010 after philanthropist Gordan Hartman noticed his disabled daughter, Morgan, was shunned by other children at a hotel swimming pool. It’s the first theme park completely designed for individuals with special needs and admission is free if you have a disability. Everything is wheelchair-accessible, ranging from the wheelchair swings to the sensory village to the Wonderland Express train ride.
The YMCA of the Rockies makes it possible for kids of all abilities to participate in great outdoor activities. (Photo: YMCA of the Rockies)
Located right next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, this retreat has made it possible for kids with disabilities to access a usually daunting terrain, by modifying activities such as horseback riding, hiking, archery, and ropes courses. Kids staying at the site are welcome to join the day camp program for just $30 a day, which offers one-on-one staffing for children with special needs. “We typically work with about 25 kids with disabilities over the summer,” says Courtney Danis, Head of the YMCA’s Day Camp program.
This Vermont haven prides itself on being accessible to kids with special needs, ranging from its inclusion program in their daily children’s program to its therapeutic swim lessons, Swim Whispers, to its Autism Mountain Camp. And you can’t beat its eight outdoor heated pools and four water slides (or it’s proximity to the Ben & Jerry’s Factory).
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